Welcome readers to another year of Reading into History! We are so excited to see new readers and old friends for an especially magical start to our year.
On the closing day of our special exhibition Summer of Magic: Treasures from the David Copperfield Collection, celebrated author Deborah Noyes joins us to discuss her book The Magician and the Spirits. Through a deep dive into one of Harry Houdini’s lifelong obsessions, Noyes offers a glimpse into the colorful and intricate perceptions about magic in the early 1900s. (You can brush up on your history of magic here!)
Noyes is an expert on all things magic (including the tricky techniques that go into capturing “spirits” in photography!) so we asked her a few questions in preparation of our first meeting this fall. Check out our interview with her below—see you on September 16!
DCHM: There are so many fascinating chapters in Harry Houdini’s life. What inspired you to focus specifically on Houdini’s relationship with the Spiritualist movement?
Deborah Noyes: I’ve wanted to write about Houdini for a while, but with so many biographies already out there, I needed a fresh angle in. When I learned he had ties to the Spiritualists (I encountered them years ago while researching an adult historical novel about the Fox Sisters), the deal was sealed. The idea of pugnacious Houdini taking on what was at the time a wildly popular religious movement, one championed by the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was too good to resist.
DCHM: One of the most interesting points in your book is that despite Houdini’s worldwide success as a magician, he also strove to be a writer. What was Houdini like as a writer? How do you think his life as a magician informed his writing process and style?
Deborah Noyes: His father was a scholarly man, a rabbi, and a great influence on him. I think there was a part of Houdini that always wanted to measure up, to be taken seriously as an intellectual in the way his friend (and later, antagonist) Arthur Conan Doyle was. Houdini was an argumentative force of nature and probably wrote as he spoke, taking no prisoners. His voice and ego feel very present in his books. As a performer, he knew how to prime his audience, keep readers in suspense, and he had a sharp eye for detail.
DCHM: Your book features several spooky photographs taken in the style of “spirit photography.” Readers may be surprised to find that these images were not taken in the 20th century but were in fact taken by you! How did you learn to take these images? What surprised you about the process?
Deborah Noyes: I learned from a specialist in 19th-century photography at the Eastman Museum. My goal was to try and make pictures the way early “spirit photographers” did, pouring sticky emulsion onto glass or sheets of tin and exposing in an antique camera. The “spirits” or “extras” were friends and family dressed in period costume or gauze. We made a party of it. One would sit for the full exposure time while the other walked out of the frame early, leaving a “ghost” or blur. The most surprising thing to me, living in the age of Photoshop, is how duped people were [in the past] by these fakes. Photography was still new and amazing, and people genuinely believed they were seeing the spirits of dead loved ones. It’s poignant—and makes you realize why Houdini (who knew all the tricks) got angry enough to launch a crusade.
DCHM: Did you learn or test out any of the other tricks or illusions spiritualists and illusionists performed? If not, was there a specific illusion that you came across in your research that you think would be fun to learn?
Deborah Noyes: There’s a very cool series of photos at the Library of Congress—I use one of them in the book—of Houdini demonstrating, step-by-step, how to make “spirit hands” (luminous, lifelike hands used in séances) by inflating rubber gloves and pouring melted wax in. And table tipping would be fun to learn or—better yet—levitation.
DCHM: In order to weave this story together, you use so many different types of sources, from letters and diary entries to photographs and illustrations. What type of historical research did you do and where did you do it?
Deborah Noyes: Houdini gifted scrapbooks, documents, photos, and some of his own substantial magic collection to the Library of Congress, so there’s a treasure trove there. Both Houdini and Doyle wrote books and pamphlets. I drew from those and from online news and photo archives. There are many fantastic Houdini blogs and aggregate databases like John Cox’s “Wild About Houdini” and Tom Interval’s “Houdini in the New York Times,” often maintained by magicians. But some of the best bounty and inspiration came from collectors—generous individuals and organizations like this one. There’s no substitute for seeing Houdini’s milk can or handcuffs with your own eyes. These objects drive home how physical and tactile his feats were and how, as an agile technician, he was well armed to expose the tricks of the séance trade.
DCHM: What three words best describe The Magician and the Spirits?
Deborah Noyes: One reviewer called the book “strange and sneakily affecting.” Let’s go with that.